Monday, December 27, 2021

Some Possible Launch Milestones for 2022

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has an article up that hints at four major, big rockets that may get their first flights in '22 - and then shows his own predictions are either for '23 or farther out.  Since this tends to be a slow news week (although work was ongoing at SpaceX Boca Chica today), and most of that news seems to be either "2021 in review" or "predictions for next year," it seems like a good article to direct you to.  

The big one, the one we've been tracking the most, is Starship.  Starship will get it's first trial for orbit this year to virtually absolute certainty.  It could be as early as January.  

Super Heavy

Capacity to LEO: 150 tons

Current official launch date: "January or February" 2022

Our previous estimated launch date: N/A

Our current estimated launch date: Q2 2022

Confidence: Medium

Here I move up a bit from Berger and think that February is still possible.  Q2, as he predicts, starts in April, and I feel rather sure that they will make Q1, barring some sort of spectacularly bad failure.   They have backup hardware already: Booster 5 is complete and in the shipyard, while they have started assembling the next booster, (called B7 and not B6 for some reason).  There's at least one other Starship, 21, in the shipyard, too. 

Booster 4 completing its journey from the high bay to the launch area.  Photo by Starship Gazer on Twitter with H/T to Teslarati.

The next most likely to fly after Starship (in my opinion, of course) is NASA's Space Launch System (SLS)

Space Launch System

Capacity to LEO: 95 tons

Current official launch date: March-April 2022

Our previous estimated launch date: Q2 2021

Our current estimated launch date: Summer 2022

Confidence: Medium

Around early December, NASA announced a problem with the SLS engine controller computer on one of the four main engines that power the rocket. Have they used up its lifetime preparing it for its (less than) ten minutes of life?  The only other explanation is that they damaged it during test, and neither of those options is particularly attractive.  Prior to this, the schedule had called for a rollout of the rocket to the launch pad at the end of December, and now that will not happen.

As the above bullet points say, the official date is March through April but Eric Berger is saying nope.  More likely to him is summer '22.  If I may quote myself, “If NASA and Boeing are lucky and there are no more failures that eat months at a time, Artemis-1 might fly by the fall of 2022.”  My reasoning was simple.  The schedule to launch before the end of this year was never changed after their time at Stennis delayed completion of their Green Run test by nine months.  I just added nine months to the announced "before the end of '21" date.  

The launch vehicle stage adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is integrated with the core stage in June.  NASA Photo from Ars Technica.


Capacity to LEO: 27 tons

Current official launch date: Mid-2022

Our previous estimated launch date: Q1 2022

Our current estimated launch date: Q1 2023

Confidence: Medium

This is ULA's lifeboat.  Since they've stopped selling Atlas V launches, their only key to survival is they need to get Vulcan flying.  To do that, they need flight-certified BE-4 engines from Blue Origin and that keeps slipping out in time.  To borrow from my December 17 posting:

Blue Origin had been saying since last summer that they would deliver flight-ready BE-4 engines for the ULA Vulcan by "the end of the year."  That's pretty much right now and a couple of insider sources have told Ars Technica that the delivery isn't going to happen. 

Blue Origin is unlikely to deliver two flight-ready versions of the BE-4 rocket engine to United Launch Alliance (ULA) before at least the second quarter of 2022, two sources say. This increases the possibility that the debut flight of ULA's much-anticipated new rocket, Vulcan, could slip into 2023.

A "relatively small" production issue was blamed for the delay, but the bottom line is the delay.  A reasonable "no-earlier-than" date for the engines' to get to ULA's manufacturing facility is now April 2022, and this assumes a smooth final production and testing phase. 

I'd have to agree with Ars and Eric Berger here and say I don't think they'll deliver those flight-ready (certified) engines until after mid-'22. That makes first launch in Q1 of '23 look reasonable.  If they do deliver the BE-4 engines on time, I'll go with a Q3 2022 launch prediction. 

A slightly smaller rocket with almost identical outlook is from the European Space Agency

Ariane 6

Capacity to LEO: 22 tons

Current official launch date: Second half of 2022

Our previous estimated launch date: Q4 2020

Our current estimated launch date: Q1 2023

Confidence: Medium to low

The ESA is a bit opaque from where I'm sitting.  I get very little information on ESA projects, possibly due to their being (in so many words) a European Union jobs program.  Because of that, I have no particular comments other than to defer to Eric Berger's judgment.  

Speaking of which, the only other heavy lift rocket that's "officially" listed as likely to fly in '22 is ...

New Glenn

Capacity to LEO: 45 tons

Current official launch date: End of 2022

Our previous estimated launch date: Q2 2021

Our current estimated launch date: Q3 2024

Confidence: Low

Yes, Blue Origin's New Glenn.  Blue is unique in this array of rocket companies in never having achieved orbit and that seems like it must mean something.  Their plans for New Glenn are ambitious, and they may well get there, eventually, but their biggest handicap appears to be no hardware to launch.  The engines they're (apparently) desperately trying to build for ULA's Vulcan will also power the New Glenn.  

Berger points out "Blue Origin tends to move at a methodical pace" and slow but methodical beats fast but haphazard any day.  Especially in the launch business. So they have that going for them.  If they can't deliver those flight-certified BE-4 engines to ULA, Blue is pretty much toast and ULA will be hard hit, too. 

An artist's rendering of a New Glenn rocket in flight.  From Blue Origin.

Eric Berger says that while Blue is aiming to launch by the end of this year, late in '24 seems more likely.  All I can say is that there's a better chance I'll fly by flapping my arms than Blue Origin will fly a New Glenn in '22.


  1. What's going to bite ULA in the arse is that all those US Government launches scheduled for 2022 and Vulcan are required by law to be on US only launchers that are all US components.

    So BO has screwed ULA, probably for good. Expect ULA to go Tango Uniform unless a replacement for the BE4 engine comes out of left field at the last moment to the tune of the William Tell Overture while hollering "Garry Owen" or something.

    Which means... SpaceX will be the launch winner. All those launches that ULA will not be able to fulfill will have to go somewhere and the only launch provider that fits the payload capacity and the 'Made in USA only' requirement is the Falcon 9.

    BO has screwed everyone. EVERYONE. They need to either put up or shut up and shut down.

    And part of me is thinking... that Bezos planned this. The destruction of ULA. And the destruction of Vulcan, which was a viable alternative to New Glenn.

    It's truly sucky that such a conman as Bezos has dared to use the names of true space heroes on their ships.

    1. Maybe the answer isn't that hard. Since they're the same LCH4/LOX chemistry and virtually the same thrust, maybe switch to the mass-produced Raptor 2. Or Raptor 3.

      It would require Tory Bruno to say he picked the wrong horse in the race, but a real leader knows how to do that.

      And maybe the BE-4 will get those last 1% (or 5% or...) problems resolved.

  2. Super Heavy may(will?) be delayed because the FAA Environmental Review is going to be delayed. One purpose is no make sure that SLS launches before Starship/Super Heavy. Another problem is that there are some rabid environmentalists who want to shut down Starship/Super Heavy; they don't really say why and I will not speculate.

    1. Another problem is that there are some rabid environmentalists who want to shut down Starship/Super Heavy; they don't really say why and I will not speculate.

      If you haven't read Michael Shellenberger's "Apocalypse Never," I strongly recommend it. Here's a guy who was a hero of the greenies until he started pointing out their mistakes. Things like nuclear power being a really good solution to getting energy to people, or that a couple of years ago, when the big buzz was "the lungs of the world are burning", it was nothing compared to other years. He pretty much shows over and over that most of those rabid environmentalists just want a pretty place to visit or live and don't give a crap about the people living there or about the issues they push. It's all about them and the world they think is pretty.

      I have no doubt the main arguments against Starbase Boca Chica come down to some group that thinks "it's such a pretty beach! No hotels, no big condos, we can go there, lie on the beach and just enjoy it."